I teach English at Soldan International Studies High School in St. Louis. Last Thursday, a student asked one of those questions that are near impossible to answer. Like, “Would Juliet have lived if Shakespeare had been a woman?” Or, “Who’s the greatest poet who ever lived?” Questions like that.
Except last Thursday it was personal. “Dr. Tieman, who was your best high school teacher?”
I recall my teenage years as one long dark epoch that ran an emotional gauntlet between adolescent angst to teenage depression. I had reached that point where I fully realized the inadequacy of adults in general, and my own parents in particular. My father was a drunkard, and abandoned us.
Into that gap walked Mr. Roland. By a coincidence of scheduling, he taught me English three of my four years, 1964 to 1968, at the old Mercy High School in St. Louis, my hometown. Mercy was a pure product of the baby boom, was closed about 1985, and was finally torn down about 1992 or 3 or so.
Edwin P. Roland was a tall, gangly black man. He had a sonorous, baritone voice. His hands were enormous, and made a paperback disappear like a matchbook in his palm. He was a stern, no nonsense disciplinarian. He also was gentlemanly, his demeanor often accompanied by a ready smile. Mr. Roland was maybe sixty when I knew him. His methods of teaching were quite traditional, well suited to a Catholic academy. He was beloved.
Legends about him abounded. Mr. Roland was a Rhodes Scholar. He attended Washington U. – or was it St. Louis U.? – on a basketball scholarship. Today, I have no idea what university he attended, how he paid for it, or what he studied. Of his love of Shakespeare, of his love of the scholarly, of this I know.
Mr. Roland taught much in the way of content. I still recall some of his vocabulary and grammar lessons. But what lingers is his attitude toward erudition and art. He conveyed this in two lessons that I remember.
One day, Mr. Roland said to me, “Oh, that’s scholarly, sir. Scholarly!” What he was complimenting so lavishly was some ninth grade theme I’d written. Here was his first lesson, a lesson I didn’t fathom at the time. It took me perhaps another decade to appreciate what being scholarly actually involves. But it was Mr. Roland who first taught me that scholarship was a noble pursuit.
His second lesson came one day when he read Shakespeare. I was in the front row. Mr. Roland’s baritone voice alternately boomed and whispered. I was mesmerized. I had read Shakespeare before. But I didn’t know it sounded like that!
I no longer remember what Mr. Roland read. That’s just as well. The importance of this lesson was not in its content but in his attitude toward beauty.
That’s what I took away from those two lessons. That’s what has remained constant all these years. The wonder of beauty. The word “scholarly”.
I’ve traveled the world since those school days. Served in Vietnam. Taught school overseas. Earned a Ph. D. from St. Louis University. Overcame my own alcoholism. Married happily. Published a lot. Made many friends. I’ve been a certified teacher for well over thirty years. In short, I’ve had many great influences. Many great teachers.
As I enter the autumn of my own teaching career, I realize that Mr. Roland was different. At an age in which I was emotionally fragile, he gave me a constancy not in a lecture but in a vision of what a person can be. That constancy was something I could take away from Mercy High School, something that would remain a part of me all my life. The pursuit of the scholarly. The longing for the beautiful.
I’ve known too many excellent teachers, scholars and writers to make any claims for my inclusion in these categories. But I’ve known the pursuit of the scholarly. I’ve known the wonder of beauty. And my days have been greatly enriched because once, over forty years ago in a school that no longer exists, Mr. Roland taught me a couple of lessons.